The Mental Health of Canadian Farmers

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Canadian farmers face significant challenges in their work, such as market volatility and extreme weather events, which are compounded by difficult farm working conditions that involve long hours in often isolated conditions and a high risk of occupational injury.

These stressors correlate with farmers experiencing mental health challenges, including anxiety and depression, at higher rates than the general population. Furthermore, farmers face personal and institutional barriers in accessing mental health services to address these issues.

What the Data Say

Between September 2015 and February 2016, researchers in one University of Guelph study surveyed 1,132 Canadian farmers to measure their mental health using established metrics for stress, depression and anxiety. They also sought to measure farmers’ resilience, defined as their ability to “thrive in the face of adversity.” While the survey was conducted only in English and may therefore not be representative of farmers across Canada, it provides the most comprehensive and recent overview of the state of Canadian farmers’ mental health.

The survey’s results highlighted that

  • 33% of respondents had probable cases of anxiety, while 57% had possible cases;
  • 15% of respondents had probable cases of depression, while 34% had possible cases;
  • 9% of respondents had Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) scores that indicated psychological distress; and
  • average resilience scores among respondents as measured on the Connor–Davidson Resilience Scale (71.8 among men; 69.5 among women) were lower than the average for the general United States population (75.7 among men; 83.0 among women). This is concerning given that resilience helps guard against the negative impacts of stress on mental health.

While they use different methodologies, the University of Guelph study reported rates of anxiety and depression among farmers that are substantially higher than those described in Statistics Canada’s Canadian Community Health Survey, which measures rates of self-reported anxiety and “major depressive episodes” among the general Canadian population. A Statistics Canada analysis of these data between 2000 and 2016 found the following:

  • 6% of Canadians in the labour force self-reported an anxiety disorder; and
  • 4% of Canadians in the labour force reported experiencing a “major depressive episode” in the past 12 months.

Access to Mental Health Services

Farmers face personal and institutional barriers in accessing mental health care. Mental health care practitioners and other mental health resources tend to be in cities, whereas most farmers (over 80% in Canada, according to the 2016 Census of Agriculture) tend to live in rural areas.

According to a 2015 document from the Canadian Psychological Association, while Canadian urban areas have an average of one psychologist for every 3,848 people, this ratio decreases to one psychologist for every 28,500 people in rural regions. A 2018 study in the American Journal of Men’s Health noted that, because of the unequal distribution of mental health and other health care resources, Canadians in rural areas often rely on other health care professionals, including nurses and pharmacists, for mental health guidance.

In a 2022 study, some Canadian farmers reported that they do not have the time or money needed to travel to access such services. A 2019 report from Farm Management Canada, an agricultural trade group, suggests that on-farm time pressures may be compounded as more farmers take jobs off the farm to supplement their household income. Statistics Canada reports that off-farm income as a percentage of total farm family income has increased in Canada in recent years, accounting for 64.4% of total income of farm families in 2019, an increase from 62.9% the year before.

One study in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry observed that women in farming households are particularly susceptible to time pressures as they perform on-farm duties and domestic labour such as household tasks and child care, and tend to be more likely to work off the farm to help supplement family incomes. The same study noted that women not only experience stress related to their work but also – unlike most men – reported experiencing stress related to the impact of farm operations on the physical, social and financial well-being of family members.

As the House of Commons Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food observed in its 2019 report on farmers’ mental health, attempts to make mental health services accessible online are often hampered by a lack of high-speed broadband Internet access in rural areas. According to the most recent Government of Canada data, 53.4% of rural households have access to the higher broadband Internet speeds that would be required to access robust mental health telemedicine services.

Beyond these structural limitations, studies have also identified personal attitudes, notably a stigmatization of mental health issues, as being a factor in preventing farmers (particularly men) from seeking help. One recent study of Ontario farmers in the Journal of Agromedicine found that many farmers value self-sufficiency and stoicism over openly discussing problems with and seeking help from others. These attitudes are often tied to gender roles and traditional interpretations of masculinity, with men being less likely to report experiencing stress and other mental health challenges and seek help for them.

Figure 1 illustrates some examples of the mental health challenges and obstacles to accessing services that Canadian farmers face.

Figure 1– The Mental Health of Canadian Farmers: An Overview

The infographic gives an overview of the mental health of Canadian farmers and certain factors that have an impact on their mental health. 57% of Canadian farmers surveyed had possible cases of anxiety. High levels of perceived stress affect 45% of farmers and 20.4% of the general population. Possible cases of depression affect 34% of farmers. 83.9% of farm operators live in rural areas. In rural areas, there is one psychologist for every 28,500 people compared to one psychologist for every 3,848 people in urban areas. 53.4% of rural households have access to high broadband Internet speeds compared to 89.5% of households for Canada as a whole.

Sources: Figure prepared by the Library of Parliament using data obtained from Andria Jones-Bitton et al., “Stress, Anxiety, Depression, and Resilience in Canadian Farmers,” Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, Vol. 55, No. 2, February 2020; Andria Jones-Bitton, Submission to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food: Strengthening Canada’s Agricultural Sector – A Canadian Network for Farmer Mental Health, 15 August 2019; Statistics Canada, “Perceived life stress, by age group,” Database, accessed 2 May 2022; Kathleen G. Dobson et al., “Trends in the prevalence of depression and anxiety disorders among working-age Canadian adults between 2000 and 2016,” Health Reports, Statistics Canada, 16 December 2020; Canadian Psychological Association, Pre-budget submission to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance, July 2015; Statistics Canada, “Number of persons in the total population and the farm population, for rural areas and population centres classified by sex and age,” Database, accessed 2 May 2022; and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Broadband Fund: Closing the digital divide in Canada, accessed 2 June 2022.

Canadian and International Initiatives

National and local governments and non-governmental organizations have created a variety of initiatives to support farmers facing mental health challenges. Some initiatives also train those who come into regular professional contact with farmers, such as veterinarians and financial advisors, to recognize signs of distress and guide farmers to appropriate resources.

The Ontario study cited above also noted the importance of what it calls “farm credibility,” or practitioners being aware of agriculture, in services targeting farmers. In a 2005 survey of Canadian farmers conducted by the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, 92% of respondents said that it was important to them that mental health providers understood farm life and their work.

A 2020 evaluative study of farmer mental health initiatives in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that most initiatives are lacking in long-term data to measure their effectiveness. It noted that while some initiatives succeed in helping raise awareness of mental health issues among farmers and others in farming communities, it is not clear whether this awareness improved farmers’ long-term mental health outcomes.

Examples of notable Canadian and international programs that deal with farmer mental health include the following:

  • 4-H Canada, in cooperation with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, developed the “In the Know” initiative designed to help raise awareness of mental health issues among farmers and members of the extended farming community, such as veterinarians and community members.
  • Au cœur des familles agricoles [in French] is a non-profit organization that offers counselling and other psychological services to farmers in Québec. Its “Travailleurs de rang” initiative pairs social workers with local farming communities to offer farmers and their families a visible and confidential source for mental health information.
  • The United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network funds local mental health initiatives for farmers and ranchers across the United States, most of them operated by universities and non-profit organizations.
  • The Rural Adversity Mental Health Program, founded in 2017 following a drought in the Australian state of New South Wales, refers participants to local mental health services and resources, and educates communities about mental health and well-being.
  • Mutualité sociale agricole, a professional organization of agricultural workers in France, offers mental health information, referral services and direct counselling to farmers through its Agri’écoute platform [in French].

Recent Government of Canada Announcements

In November 2021, the federal government and the Government of Ontario announced more than $7 million in funding through the Canadian Agricultural Partnership for farmer mental health initiatives in Ontario.

Also in November 2021, the federal and provincial/territorial ministers of agriculture released a joint statement outlining their shared policy priorities for Canadian agriculture. Among the priorities in this document, sometimes referred to as the Guelph Statement, is a commitment to “[s]upport and empower producers and agri-food workers to take care of their mental health.”

By Daniel Farrelly, Library of Parliament

Categories: Agriculture, environment, fisheries and natural resources, Current Issues in Mental Health in Canada, Health and safety

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